In Donald Trump’s America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as “enemies of the people.”
Facts that contradict Trump’s version of reality are dismissed as “fake news.” Reporters and their news organizations are “pathetic,” “very dishonest,” “failing,” and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, “a pile of garbage.”
Trump is, of course, not the first American president to whine about the news media or try to influence coverage. President George W. Bush saw the press as elitist and “slick.” President Obama’s press operation tried to exclude Fox News reporters from interviews, blocked many officials from talking to journalists and, most troubling, prosecuted more national security whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous presidents combined.
But Trump being Trump, he has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.
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Most presidents, irritated as they may have been, have continued to acknowledge – at least publicly – that an independent press plays an essential role in American democracy. They’ve recognized that although no news organization is perfect, honest reporting holds leaders and institutions accountable; that’s why a free press was singled out for protection in the First Amendment and why outspoken, unfettered journalism is considered a hallmark of a free country.
Trump doesn’t seem to buy it. On his very first day in office, he called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” Since then he has regularly condemned legitimate reporting as “fake news.” His administration has blocked mainstream news organizations from briefings and his secretary of State chose to travel to Asia without taking the press corps, breaking a longtime tradition.
This may seem like bizarre behavior from a man who consumes the news in print and on television so voraciously and who is in many ways a product of the media. He comes from reality TV, from talk radio with Howard Stern, from the gossip pages of the New York City tabloids, for whose columnists he was both a regular subject and a regular source.
But Trump’s strategy is pretty clear: By branding reporters as liars, he apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality. By undermining trust in news organizations and delegitimizing journalism and muddling the facts so that Americans no longer know whom to believe, he can deny and distract and help push his administration’s far-fetched storyline.
It’s a cynical strategy, with some creepy overtones. For instance, when he calls journalists “enemies of the people,” Trump (whether he knows it or not) echoes Josef Stalin and other despots.
But it’s an effective strategy. Such attacks are politically expedient at a moment when trust in the news media is as low as it’s ever been, according to Gallup. And they’re especially resonant with Trump’s supporters, many of whom see journalists as part of the swamp that needs to be drained.
Of course, we’re not perfect. Some readers find news organizations too cynical; others say we’re too elitist. Some say we downplay important stories, or miss them altogether. Conservatives often perceive an unshakable liberal bias in the media (while critics on the left see big, corporate-owned media institutions as hopelessly centrist).
To do the best possible job, and to hold the confidence of the public in turbulent times, requires constant self-examination and evolution. Soul-searching moments – such as those that occurred after The New York Times was criticized for its coverage of the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq war or, more recently, when the media failed to take Trump’s candidacy seriously enough in the early days of his campaign – can help us do a better job for readers. Even if we are not faultless, the news media remain an essential component in the democratic process and should not be undermined by the president.